Kevin B. Lee, whom Peter Labuza, writing for the Film Stage, quite rightly calls “one of the most accomplished video essayists currently working in the genre today” (see, for example, his work for us here at Keyframe, plus more on Vimeo), has spent ten months on what’s probably his most ambitious project yet, Transformers: The Premake. If the first few minutes suggest that the Premake will be “merely” a smartly produced and mildly amusing 25-minute documentation of star-struck fans going gaga as Michael Bay stages the destruction of Chicago for Transformers: Age of Extinction (opening on June 27), it’s not long before that first impression goes up in a blazing fireball. Formally and thematically, the Premake becomes brain-singeingly complex as Kevin begins grappling with the effect of the proliferation of cameras and screens on our sense of reality, ownership and appropriation of images (especially those made in public spaces) and even the shifting of global economic power to China.
But let’s back up. As Cara Buckley puts it far more succinctly in the New York Times, the Premake “examines the making of a Hollywood blockbuster in an international marketplace.” Kevin “initially planned to make a documentary on how the movie was filmed. But as he got deeper into the project, he was struck by the high visibility of the shoot. The filming overtook major streets and busy intersections in Chicago, and crews doled out Transformers stickers and rub-on tattoos. Mr. Lee was also surprised by the hundreds of videos of filming that remained online. In a blockbuster film about humanoid robots, humans had become part of the giant marketing machine.”
From Chicago, we head to Utah, Texas, Detroit, Hong Kong and mainland China. As Buckley points out, because Bay’s fourth Transformers movie is co-produced by a Chinese company, was partly shot in China and features Chinese stars Han Geng and the Li Bingbing, it not only bypasses China’s quota on foreign films but also guarantees a solid launch in the world’s second largest marketplace for movies. Those facts are plain enough, but Kevin has selected footage and soundbites to reveal the wide range of ways the Chinese are perceiving the mythology of Transformers as well as the immediate presence of this monolithic ad hoc corporation—and the ways in which the Chinese government attempts to maintain control of those perceptions.
My own favorite Premake moment is classic Kevin B. Lee. In the Detroit passage, he jams the voice of one YouTuber claiming to have exclusive footage of the goings on on the set up against a Google map annotated with the positions of a couple of other amateur camerafolk capturing those very same goings on.
A quick word about the form—from Kevin himself: “Desktop documentary is an emerging form of filmmaking developed at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago by faculty artists such as Nick Briz, Jon Satrom and Jon Cates, and students such as myself, Yuan Zheng and Blair Bogin. This form of filmmaking treats the computer screen as both a camera lens and a canvas, tapping into its potential as an artistic medium. If the documentary genre is meant to capture life’s reality, then desktop recording acknowledges that computer screens and the internet are now a primary experience of our daily lives, as well as a primary repository of information.”
“While the crowdsourced assemblage of footage of the movie’s Chicago filming doesn’t violate any copyright laws I know of, it’s probably a good idea to watch it now, just in case,” suggests Sam Adams at Criticwire. Indeed. There are moments in the Premake when you can’t help but think, oh, Kevin, they’ll be coming at you any moment now.
On Friday, Kevin will be presenting the Premake as well as more related material at the Nightingale in Chicago.
Updates, 6/19: “What role then does the amateur image-maker play in a pre-made consumer reality?” asks Kevin in a piece for Slate. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Hollywood studios some day host their own ‘premake’ events, where fans are authorized—for a fee, perhaps—to visit sets and shoot footage to make their own versions of the film, which would then be repackaged as promotional content. But whether or not that happens, I hope that people will push to connect more conscientiously with the movies, to think not only about these immense productions and their effects on the world, but also their own creative potential, and the possibility of a more democratic economy of images.”
“Besides predictably entertaining footage of Michael Bay being a shouty prima donna on set,” writes Vadim Rizov at Filmmaker, “I was especially hypnotized by Lee’s connecting the dots of the global finances that set a juggernaut like the fourth Transformers in motion. There are dilations on the tax breaks that draw productions to different states, including a hard-sell, over-earnest commercial extolling the employment importance of Michigan film tax credits. The migration of Hollywood productions from one state to another in search of the most advantageous tax breaks, which has led states to try to outdo each other with more and more incentives, is often described as a ‘race to the bottom’; Lee seems more ambivalent but doesn’t tip his hand one way or another.”
For the Dissolve‘s Noel Murray, “while Transformers: The Premake’s insights into modern life and modern moviemaking are depressing, the movie itself is anything but. Lee’s not really scolding the fans here; The Premake seems to acknowledge that big blockbuster explosions are fun to watch, and that it’s genuinely thrilling to catch a glimpse of Mark Wahlberg on the other side of a barricade…. In the end, Lee takes his cues from a piece of Age of Extinction set dressing: a giant poster from the Chicago location that reads, ‘Report Alien Activity.’ Transformers: The Premake does just that, thoroughly and entertainingly.”
Updates, 6/22: So now that the actual product has premiered in Hong Kong, the first reviews are popping up. “Bay continues to evolve ways to make robotic shape-shifting look increasingly seamless and realistic in 3D,” writes Maggie Lee for Variety before turning to a few of the issues Kevin’s addressed in the Premake: “Set to be released in 2D, 3D and Imax 3D worldwide, the $165 million mega-production will reportedly kickstart a brand-new trilogy with a complete change of human cast (Mark Wahlberg steps in for Shia LaBeouf here) and the introduction of a new species, the Dinobots, which may have some crossover appeal for fans of another soon-to-be-rebooted franchise, Jurassic Park. Paramount is eyeing especially sky-high returns in China, where Transformers: Dark of the Moon is the fourth highest-grossing film of all time with nearly $180 million, and where Age of Extinction received mainland production assistance from 1905 (Beijing) Network Technology Co., China Movie Channel and Jiaflix Enterprises. Still, it’s Hong Kong that gets the lion’s share of the attention onscreen, taking up about 30 minutes of the film’s 165-minute running time (a franchise record).”
“True, there’s a lot of state-of-the-art 3D chicanery, and the film is a marked improvement over the wholesale inhuman chaos of the last two installments,” writes Clarence Tsui in the Hollywood Reporter. “But the bloat of this latest entry—at 165 minutes, the longest of the lot—suggests that Michael Bay and his team are struggling to rejuvenate the whole premise…. Belying its ominous title, Age of Extinction barely skirts the idea that humankind and planet Earth are about to be totally annihilated. What is extinguished is the audience’s consciousness after being bombarded for nearly three hours with overwrought emotions…, bad one-liners and battles that rarely rise above the banal.”
“Mark Wahlberg cuts a far more relatable action hero,” grants James Marsh, writing for Screen Daily. “Kelsey Grammer is suitably gruff and sinister as the political puppet master working all the angles ‘to keep America safe.’ Stanley Tucci is clearly having a blast as Joshua, whose research into ‘Transformium’ (the creakiest elemental name since Avatar’s ‘unobtanium’) unleashes a new army of artificially constructed Transformers on society…. As is often the case, Bay overcompensates for his flimsy narrative and characterisation with a bombastic and visually aggressive aesthetic, complemented by a thunderous, relentlessly intrusive score from Steve Jablonsky.”
HitFix‘s Drew McWeeney likes it, though: “I think this is a big step in the right direction.”
RedLetterMedia watches the first three Transformers movies simultaneously
Updates, 6/27: So now, Kevin, too, has seen the finished product and he’s turned a review into Film Comment, even though “I am still deliberating whether to evaluate it as a trans-cultural entertainment product or as a work of cinema. Because, as a movie, Transformers: Age of Extinction is in fact a significant improvement over its predecessors—it seems that the fourth time’s the charm. Or perhaps the charm lies in Mark Wahlberg, who contributed mightily to director Michael Bay’s previous (and possibly best) film, Pain and Gain, which dove headlong into his longstanding obsessions surrounding masculinity and success.”
“Bay has the passionate integrity of a natural cynic,” writes the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody. “He’s not a sincere sentimentalist like Steven Spielberg; he has a roguish honesty that doesn’t hide behind noble intentions and displays its ravenous appetites and crafty calculations openly. His entire 165-million-dollar budget is there to be seen on the screen, with the price tag showing and the expected return underneath. The two hours and 45 minutes of Transformers: Age of Extinction reveal his attention and concern, with each moment crafted to hold the audience through hysterical and vulgar excess. Bay doesn’t deign to extend his extraordinary control to the images; he substitutes attitude for comprehension and swagger for observation, and, for all his meticulous command over the movie’s elements of action and design, performance and effect, his taste is cheerfully execrable. He’s the Wes Anderson of dreck.”
Sam Adams has been collecting reviews at Criticwire and suggests that it’s “entirely possible” that “has perfected a new kind of cinema. It’s hard to decide if it feels more like five movies randomly compressed into one or a 20-minute short bloated to eight times its original length. Scenes begin and end at random; days and nights pass without notice; characters jump around like board-game pieces shifted by an unruly child. It’s not incompetent so much as supercompetent, transcending mortal concerns like coherence and causation in favor of a 32-oz serving of Kickass Joy Juice.”
More from Nathan Bartlebaugh (Film Stage, C), Paul Constant (Stranger), David Edelstein (Vulture), Eric Henderson (Slant, 1/4), Jordan Hoffman (Film.com, 6.1/10), Kevin Jagernauth (Playlist, D), Glenn Kenny (RogerEbert.com, 2.5/4), Christopher Orr (Atlantic), Ray Pride (Newcity Film), A.O. Scott (NYT), Tom Shone (Guardian, 1/5), Matt Singer (Dissolve, 1/5), Dana Stevens (Slate), Ignatiy Vishnevetsky (AV Club, C-) and Alison Willmore (Buzzfeed).
At the Awl, John Lichman talks with Kevin about the Premake.
Viewing (11’47”). “In April of this year,” writes Nelson Carvajal for Esquire, “Kevin invited me to his project office at the SAIC media hub downtown. He led the way into his office, lifting a curtain at the entrance. When I walked in I was kind of stunned. The walls were filled with color printouts of every scene from both the Super Bowl TV spot and theatrical teaser for Transformers: Age of Extinction. More importantly, next to each image on the wall was an index card or Post-it note, with an observation or deciphering…. Between that moment and the premiere of my video, Your Transformers: Digital Age of Immersion, at Chicago’s Nightingale microcinema on June 20, where it screened alongside Kevin’s Premake documentary, I revised my edit at least four or five times…. Does my video essay serve as a promotion for Bay’s film? Not in my opinion. For me, it functions as part an engrossing found footage production diary (told from the onlooker’s perspective) and also as a cross section of our instant gratification and instant uploads culture.”
Update, 6/30: “I did not see the previous three Transformers installments,” writes Tim Sutton (Pavilion, Memphis) at the Talkhouse Film. “I saw this one. And I can say with confidence that I will never see it again. Why? Like the majority of content being produced this century, it isn’t made to be seen more than once. It’s disposable. By design.”
Updates, 7/2: Here’s the question Sam Adams has put to the Criticwire network: “In his review, the New York Times‘ A.O. Scott argued that Transformers: Age of Extinction is essentially ‘a very long art film… albeit one that was made with unlimited resources.’ Conversely Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn made the case that movies like Michael Bay’s ‘actively fight against the prospects of a more varied film culture.’ What’s your take on Michael Bay? And what role, if any, do critics have with regard to a movie like Transformers: Age of Extinction?”
Writing for the Atlantic, Katie Kilkenny argues that “it’s time to recognize Bay really isn’t an auteur—he’s something else entirely.”
Updates, 7/8: In the Notebook, Adam Cook and Daniel Kasman discuss Bay’s fourth Transformers movie.
Update, 7/10: At Grantland, Alex Pappademas suggests that Transformers 4 is “a worried meditation on the state of cinema in the digital age.” It “doesn’t just exemplify senseless technological advancement—it depicts it and critiques it.”